Aerobic vs Anaerobic Running: What’s Best for Most Runners?

Aerobic running means “with oxygen” and are characterized by continuous, easy running. Anaerobic means “without oxygen” and involves higher intensity running. Trained runners should include both types of workouts in their training. Read on to learn how and why. 

Aerobic vs Anaerobic Running: Long distance runners actually need both!

Reviewed by exercise physiologist Todd Buckingham — Get out your notebooks, kids. You’re about to get schooled in running science. Specifically, we are going into aerobic vs anaerobic running – what it is and how you can use it in your running training.

You’ve likely heard someone talk about a race or workout saying that they went anaerobic—meaning they ran very hard, too hard. Or, you’ve had your GPS watch tell you that you ran X% of your run anaerobic. What does that mean? Is that good or bad?

I got with my favorite exercise physiologist and 2:25 marathoner Todd Buckingham to explain what the difference is between aerobic vs anaerobic running.

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Note: I am not a doctor—I am a running coach. Please consult yours for medical advice if you have any health conditions before starting new exercise routine!

Let’s get to it!  

Aerobic vs Anaerobic Running: Long distance runners need both to boost their running performance!
Aerobic vs Anaerobic Running: Long distance runners need both to boost their running performance!

Aerobic vs Anaerobic Running: What’s the Difference?

Aerobic running is any type of running that uses oxygen to continuously provide the muscles with energy. Think “air-obic”—with air.

Anaerobic running is any type of running that uses fuel stored within the muscle, i.e., adenosine triphosphate(ATP) and/or glycogen. Think an (not) with air-obic.

Typically, aerobic runs are your easy runs—a continuous effort for an extended period of time. Anaerobic runs are typically high-intensity interval training runs or races for a short duration (under an hour).

“In practical terms, anything below your lactate threshold (the pace at which you could run all-out for 1-hour) would be considered aerobic and anything above the lactate threshold would be considered anaerobic,” explains Buckingham. “The farther above your lactate threshold you go (i.e., the faster you run) the more anaerobic the run will be.”

Anaerobic exercise primarily uses fast twitch muscles. Along with sprinting, examples of anaerobic exercise include high intensity interval training (HIIT), plyometrics, resistance training, and power-lifting.

Related: Strength Training Guide for Runners

More specifically, here is a primer on your body’s energy systems:

  1. The Alactic Anaerobic System is for short high-energy bursts of 10-15 seconds. It doesn’t produce lactic acid as a byproduct.
  2. The Lactic Anaerobic System dominates 30 to 90 seconds of high-intensity efforts. The anaerobic energy system uses mostly glucose for fuel, produces lactate as a by-product, and creates much less ATP than the aerobic system. Sustained anaerobic exercise causes an increase in lactate in the blood and eventually the accumulation of lactate outpaces the body’s ability to clear it. This is when your legs start to burn, and it feels like you are running through quicksand. This is when you have reached your anaerobic threshold.
  3. The Aerobic System breaks down oxygen to support activities lasting from several minutes to several hours. The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) defines aerobic exercise as “any activity that uses large muscle groups, can be maintained continuously and is rhythmic in nature.” The aerobic system extracts ATP (energy) primarily from carbs and fatty acids. The aerobic and anaerobic system will work in tandem for moderate efforts.

Related: Benefits of an Easy Running Pace

So, what pace is an anaerobic pace?

Generally, speaking, any pace or effort you run that you can’t hold for an hour is in the anaerobic zone.

Let’s look at an example from Buckingham: If your 10k pace is 10:00/mile, it will take you roughly 1 hour to complete the 10k. That means your lactate threshold would be 10:00/mile (or 6 mph).

This means anything slower than 10:00/mile would be an aerobic run and anything faster than 10:00/mile would be an anaerobic run.

Related: What is a Tempo Run?

Aerobic vs Anaerobic Running: Long distance runners need both to boost their running performance!
Aerobic vs Anaerobic Running: Long distance runners need both to boost their running performance!

How long can you run anaerobically?

You can run anaerobically for up to an hour. However, save this effort for race day. Depending on the intensity, you will want to limit your anaerobic intervals to 2-3 minutes with halftime recovery.

What zone is anaerobic running in?

Anaerobic running is considered heart rate zones 4 and 5 on most GPS watches. This is about 80-100 percent of your maximum heart rate. Working out within your aerobic threshold keeps you in heart rate zones 2 and 3, about 60-80 percent of your maximum heart rate.

Related: What Should My Easy Pace Be?

Is it better to run aerobic or anaerobic?

For most trained runners, you will want to do aerobic running workouts and anaerobic running workouts. Why? Because there are benefits for both in making you a better runner.

Aerobic running allows you to build the physiological foundation for running at sustained efforts.

Anaerobic running allows you to build strength and speed.

Related: Why You Should Be Running Strides

A training program for runners will have a starting point of building a strong aerobic foundation before doing anaerobic training. This will help you maximize the benefits of your anaerobic running, prevent injury, and improve running economy.

Related: How Running Boosts Happiness

Aerobic vs Anaerobic Running

Health benefits of Aerobic Running for Runners

  • Boosts memory, metabolism, weight loss, endurance, mood, and your immune system
  • Strengthens heart and lungs
  • Increases mitochondria and capillary density
  • Lowers blood pressure

Health benefits of Anaerobic Running for Runners

  • Strengthens muscle, bone, and joints
  • Improved cardiovascular health
  • Boosts endurance, power, mood, and Vo2 max
  • Lowers blood pressure and risk of disease
  • Burns fat to promote fat loss

Related: 7 Science-Backed Reasons Running Makes You a Better Mom

How should runners use aerobic and anaerobic running in their training?

For new distance runners, most of your running should be aerobic running. This will allow you to increase fitness without getting injured.

For most trained recreational runners, at least 80 percent of weekly running volume should be aerobic. The remaining 20 percent (split over two workouts) can be done at anaerobic or near anaerobic levels, depending on what you are training for. The longer the distance (10k to marathon), the less anaerobic running you will be doing.

For most runners, I recommend a total of 10-12 percent of weekly volume of anaerobic running. Beyond that can increase injury risk. This is enough to spur the physiological changes we want without putting the runner at risk for injury.

Related: How to Start Running: A Complete Beginner’s Guide

What are examples of Aerobic vs Anaerobic Running?

Aerobic running is continuous and anaerobic runs should be completed in intervals (though runners, especially new runners, can do run/walk intervals to help keep their heart rate in zones 2 and 3). The speed and duration of the anaerobic intervals will depend on the fitness level of the runner and their running goals.

“Intervals as long as 20 minutes can be implemented, but those runs will be very close to the lactate threshold (i.e., the lowest anaerobic run you can do). Intervals can also be short, like 30 seconds to 1 minute. These intervals can be much faster than your lactate threshold because you don’t have to sustain them for as long,” explains Buckingham.

Below are some examples of aerobic exercise and anaerobic exercise for runners.

Related: How Walking Can Make You a Better Runner

Examples of Aerobic & Anaerobic Workouts

Aerobic Workouts

  • Two-hour or longer long runs
  • 6-10 miles at marathon pace effort embedded in long run
  • 60-90 minute progression run finishing the final mile at half marathon pace
  • One mile easy, one mile marathon pace in long run
  • 3 by 2-mile repeats alternating between marathon pace and half marathon pace

Related: 9 Hill Workouts for Runners

Anaerobic Workouts

  • 10 by 1-minute hill repeats at a hard effort
  • 12 by 400 meters at 8/10 effort with a 90 seconds recovery.
  • 4-6 Mile repeats at 5k effort with 90 seconds recovery
  • 12 by 200 meters at a 9/10 effort with 200-meter jog recovery
  • 6 by 800 meters at 5k effort with 90 seconds recovery

Regular exercise is good for your overall health and is recommended by the American Heart Association. If you need help getting started, consider a running coach like me!

Check out my run coaching services. Also, be sure to check out my free training plans:

 

 

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